Big new blend out of little Karoo

Thursday, 1 August, 2013
Graham Howe
A new Calitzdorp blend was launched at the twentieth Calitzdorp Port & Wine Festival in June 2013. Graham Howe visits “the port capital of the Cape” and tastes the new wave of unfortified red wines made from traditional Portuguese varieties.
"The new trend in Portugal is to make red wines from traditional port varieties. Touriga Nacional wines are getting 90+ ratings in Decanter and Parker. Port varieties make a great table wine. Six of the traditional port varieties - Trincadeira, Tinta Barocca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Francisca and Souzao - are planted in Calitzdorp. We believe a Calitzdorp blend is the way forward.”

Cellar master Carel Nel of Boplaas was speaking at the media launch of the new wave of Calitzdorp blends coming out of the Cape. Wine writers and consumers attended an impressive tasting of maiden Calitzdorp blends by eight local cellars at the twentieth Calitzdorp Port & Wine Festival in mid-June 2013. Although local producers have made many vintages of single varietal wines from Tinta Barocca and Touriga Nacional - Boets Nel of De Krans is already well-known for varietal Touriga (one of the top Cape examples) and Tempranillo - the emergence of (non-fortified) multi-varietal Portuguese style blends is a relatively new trend in South Africa.

Calitzdorp producers announced they have reached agreement on the following guidelines, namely Portuguese varieties must make up 70% of a Calitzdorp blend; use only wine of origin Calitzdorp grapes; show the term on the front and/or back label - preferably as the cellar’s flagship wine; and NOT use the term to describe a single-varietal wine; though they can use the term Portuguese blend. To develop the new brand, producers are developing a uniform bottle - and working to further improve quality by sharing knowledge of viticulture, winemaking and wood maturation.

At the tasting of some eight different Calitzdorp blends, winemakers demonstrated a diversity of winemaking styles and varietal assemblage. While Touriga Nacional is the signature lead grape common to all the blends, the use and assemblage of other Portuguese varieties, the use of Shiraz as a blending component, differences in terroir and wood regimes all produce markedly different blends:

While Mike Neebe made Axe Hill Machado 2011 out of similar proportions of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barocca, Souzao and Shiraz; Peter Bayly III 2011 is made from only Touriga, Tinta Barocca and Souzao. De Krans unveiled their maiden Tritonia 2011, a Calitzdorp Blend led by Touriga Nacional blended with Tinta Barocca and Tinta Roriz. Named after the colourful flower species of the Karoo, Tritonia has the signature herbal/fynbos fragrance and savoury/spicy character of many Calitzdorp wines and ports. (Boplaas) Woolworths “The Portuguese Connection 2011” is a blend of Tinta Barocca and Touriga with a dash of 1% Cabernet.

To meet the new 70% Portuguese variety rule for a Calitzdorp Blend, Boplaas has changed the assemblage of its Ring of Rocks blend from Cabernet/Merlot/Touriga (2011) to a 2012 barrel sample of Touriga Nacional (60%), Touriga Francisca and Souzao with Cabernet (29%). Talented winemaker Margaux Nel also unveiled a new 50/50 flagship blend of Touriga Nacional and Shiraz, a synergy she says highlights the natural affinity of these two varieties. Gamka 2012, a limited edition of 3000 bottles, this multi-regional blend sourced from Calitzdorp, Wellington and Stellenbosch bucks the trend.

The wines showed well in a comparative line-up of Boplaas port and wine which included Dirk Niepoort Vintage Port and Chapoutier Pinteivera Touriga Nacional 2010 - a joint venture between the renowned Rhône producer and Quinta do Monte d’Oiro. Made from 100% Touriga Nacional, the Portuguese wine made by the controversial French winemaker who has acquired Touriga Nacional vineyards in the Douro was rated 94-96 points (2009 vintage) by Robert Parker, who commented, “Undeniably, it (Pinteivera) is the best Portuguese wine I’ve ever tasted”. Me too.

Making wines of longevity runs in the blood of sixth generation winemaker Margaux (“like the Chateau”) Nel of Boplaas. Standing in the Doringbos vineyard against the “gordyn” (curtain) of red Karoo kloofs, she says, “We’ve been making wine here since 1880. I grew up in the house right next door to the cellar. I did my MSc on the Touriga Nacional we planted in these soils. You don’t have to tweak the Portuguese varieties in the cellar - the Calitzdorp terroir is perfect for the right acidity, tannins and balance. The whole family helps to make up our new blends”. We raced Tawny the ridgeback back to the cellar where Carel distils his own spirit to fortify the port.

While retaining its charming wine village ambience, the twentieth anniversary of the annual Calitzdorp Port & Wine Festival was bigger and better than ever over a four-day long weekend in mid-June. At cellar tastings, tables and dinners, winemakers, chefs and experts led specialist tastings of Calitzdorp ports and Portuguese-style wines with artisanal Karoo olives, figs, dried fruits, plaas kaas, chocolates, ostrich and lamb. The versatility of the Calitzdorp Blend as a big food wine for winter fare was demonstrated at one of the most authentic village wine festivals I’ve attended.

One of the highlights was the food and wine pairing led by guest chef Leon Nel of Silver Orange in Gauteng who presented “Small Plates of the Karoo” at Boplaas. He comments, “There’s a popular misconception that port only goes with a meal after dessert. The acidity, fruit and tannin of Portuguese style red wines suit our cuisine and climate - and enhance Mediterranean flavours.” “Port is not widely understood. Pairing food and wine is about weight on your palate as well acidity, fruit and spice. I’ve never come across a wine as versatile as tawny port” adds well-known foodie Junel Vermeulen who led the popular chocolate and cheese tastings over the weekend.    

Highlighting the emergence of Portuguese varietal wines on the Cape scene, CAPPA (the Cape Port Producers Association) introduced a new CAPPA Top Ten Wines in 2012. Both single varietal wines and blended wines from throughout the Cape are eligible - but must contain a minimum 30% of Portuguese varieties (compared to 70% in a Calitzdorp blend). Consumers might find this somewhat confusing - while purists might prefer a Portuguese varietal blend to be 100% (in the style of De Krans Tritonia, Peter Bayly III, TTT Calitzdorp Collage.

At the recent CAPPA Port & Wine Challenge 2013, the judges picked Axehill Machado 2012 as best in class - including Sijnn Touriga Nacional 2011 at #2 and Sijnn 2006 (a blend of Shiraz, Mourvedre, Touriga Nacional and Trincadeira) in the Top Ten Wine Challenge. Made by David Trafford from fruit grown near Malagas, the Sijnn wines were the only non-Calitzdorp wines in a line-up which featured Peter Bayly III, De Krans Red Stone Reserve 2006 and Touriga 2010, Boplaas Ring of Rocks 2011, TN 2009, Tinta Chocolat 2011 and The Portuguese Connection 2010.  

What comes next? Never one to rest on his laurels, Carel Nel says he wants t o develop a Portuguese white varietal blend using Verdelho and other varieties to add to his Portuguese Collection. There’s always something new out of the Klein Karoo. And to think it all started with “n goeie ongeluk” (a fortuitous accident) when Shiraz wines planted by Carel Nel in Caltizdorp three decades ago turned out to be Tinta Barocca! In the witty words of legendary Valiant Swart, who rocked the Calitzdorp Station on Saturday night at the port festival, “Dankie vir you “se port” (support)!   

* See, and Graham Howe stayed in the fabulous homestead at the Rietfontein Ostrich Palace, outside Calitzdorp, tel: 044 213 3784,   

Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is possibly the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for the Intrepid Explorer and - and for the weekly travel show on SAFM radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over fifty countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra ."